Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern Records, 2023

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In my experience, one of the common characteristics of people who are really, really good at something is that they’re never completely satisfied. They always feel like maybe they could do better next time—and then they put in the work.

Over the last dozen years Jason Isbell has established himself as one of the finest songwriters alive today. His 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern remains among the best of the millennium to date—but he didn’t stop with that getting-sober-and-figuring-a-few-things-out masterpiece; oh, hell no. Weathervanes is his fourth album of original music since, and each has found him pushing his own limits, fighting to get even better, dig deeper, rock harder, and reveal even sharper and more devastating truths about both himself and the world he views through those penetrating blue-green eyes.

The new album finds Isbell leaning as hard as ever on his crack band The 400 Unit—Derry deBorja (keys and background vocals), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), and Sadler Vaden (guitars and background vocals), with his Grammy-winning wife Amanda Shires again guesting on fiddle and background vocals. It’s a genuine all-star lineup that gives Isbell’s remarkable songs—all framed within the big-tent genre of Americana / alt-country / Southern Rock—that extra jolt of vibrancy and dimension they deserve. The main difference this time around is at the boards; for the first time in a decade Dave Cobb is absent, with Isbell stepping ably into the producer role he’s filled in the past for others (notably Josh Ritter and American Aquarium). Isbell’s production has more of a live, in-your-face feel than Cobb’s typically airy, sculpted sound, and that ends up working well for this bracing set of songs.

Opener “Death Wish” carries emotional echoes of Southeastern’s “Elephant,” another song about a man offering his help to a woman in distress who doesn’t want it. Here Isbell frames his tale inside a complex arrangement with a lot of moving parts and a cadence that precisely balances melancholy and drive as it gathers momentum steadily until the background chorus migrates to the front in a round-robin chant that’s positively hypnotic.

“She used to make me feel like the King of Oklahoma / But nothin’ makes me feel like much of nothin’ anymore,” sing Isbell on the dark-and-desperate rocker “King Of Oklahoma,” a tune about opioid addiction and slim hopes for redemption that come crashing down at the searing guitar solo. Then “Strawberry Woman” opens with a clean-picked acoustic melody, a gentle song of devotion for the woman “sittin’ next to me.” Even here there are undercurrents, though: “I may go stay out in the woods / Some time apart could do us good.”

Alabama native Isbell’s roots rise to the fore on the thrumming, Allman-esque “Middle Of The Morning,” a bracingly authentic tune about the challenges of navigating married life. “I know you’re scared of me / I can see it in your smile / Like an unattended child you can’t quite trust,” he sings, soon realizing one of the sources of their problems: “I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man.” The band’s sharp ensemble playing ensures Isbell’s penetrating lyric achieves maximum impact.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Never one to shy away from the political—Twitter users who tell the author of “White Man’s World” to “shut up and sing” generally get their asses handed to them—Isbell tackles the issue of gun violence head on in the harrowing, anthemic “Save The World.” Rippling electric chords and a four-on-the-floor rhythm section provide the sturdy foundation for a narrative that builds from reports of another school shooting into a headlong anthem giving voice to every parent’s worst fears.

Things quiet down momentarily for “If You Insist,” a lilting number about lonely barflies considering their options, ultimately suggesting that loneliness can sometime be a choice you make. “Cast Iron Skillet” dials things all the way back to acoustic, accordion and fiddle for a stunning story-song about interracial love in a small country town, a 3:24 tune that’s the shortest here but may pack the hardest punch.

In keeping with the surging-and-receding pattern of this well-paced hour of music, “When We Were Close” opens with big bruising electric chords introducing an elegy for a bandmate and party-buddy who drank and drugged himself to death, leaving a wife and young daughter behind. The question haunting the narrator is, why did I survive when you didn’t? If you’re thinking Isbell may be addressing an alternate-universe version of himself here, you’re not alone.

The storytelling only grows deeper and richer as you go. “Volunteer” features Shires on a rambly mid-tempo acoustic number about an orphan who grew up in foster care and is still searching for connection. Then the electric blues “Vestavia Hills” portrays an older musician watching a younger one make all the familiar mistakes—“The boy genius is grown now / And you’re an angry young man / Well I won’t be around when you die in the van.” The narrator is determined to tread a different path: “This run is my last one / I got to get off the road / Got to get my mind back in the family mode.”

Shires shines again on the thrummy acoustic-and-electric “White Beretta,” a tale that mixes regret and grace and guilt and love in a really beautiful and mature way; I think I know what it’s about, but part of the beauty is how open to interpretation Isbell leaves it. Up next, “This Ain’t It” delivers big chunky classic-rock chords on a tune about an ex trying to convince his former girlfriend to leave her husband, even if it isn’t for him; extended, dueling electric solos again feel like a nod to the brothers Allman.

The album closes with “Miles,” a remarkable three-act song that spends its first half as a midtempo electric number about mourning the loss as your child grows up, until around 3:40 it transforms into a big, punchy rocker about how adults act out in reaction to life’s frustrations. The latter falls back around 6:15 for a reprise of the former as Isbell laments the distance between parent and grown-up child and the fact that “you didn’t even see the hand that turned the page.” Oof.

Weathervanes is an album that arrives with big ambitions and immediately sets about fulfilling them. It’s an album about the need to make change—not just to experience it, or observe it, but to drive it, whether the change is in your head, your heart, your house, or your world. It’s an album about searching for connection and hope, and about mistakes and regrets and forgiveness and grace.

Every single song on Weathervanes offers the listener entry into a pocket universe filled with novelistic character details, hard-won knowledge and urgent emotion, with the music calibrated to magnify and amplify the impact each tale delivers. This is either going to sound like a cliché or an exaggeration, but I can only report the truth as I hear it: Jason Isbell is a damn poet. It’s only June, and I’m pretty sure I’ve already heard the album of the year.

Rating: A-

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